June 29, 2009 in Nation/World

Master pitchman Billy Mays dies

His efforts netted $1 billion in sales
Joe Holley Washington Post
Chris O'meara photo

(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – Billy Mays, the bearded, boisterous pitchman who, as the undisputed king of TV yell and sell, became an unlikely pop culture icon, died at his home in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday. He was 50.

Tampa police said his wife discovered him unresponsive early Sunday morning. A fire rescue crew pronounced him dead at 7:45 a.m.

The man many TV viewers knew as “the OxiClean guy” was among the passengers on a US Airways flight that made a rough landing Saturday afternoon at Tampa International Airport. Mays told Tampa’s Fox TV affiliate that something fell from the ceiling and hit him on the head, “but I got a hard head.” A police spokeswoman said linking his death to the rough landing would “purely be speculation.”

As often as 400 times a week, his “Hi! Billy Mays here!” signaled yet another paean to Mighty Putty, Simoniz Fix It scratch remover, the Big City Slider Station, the Handy Switch, the Awesome Auger and numerous other “As Seen on TV” products. In a 2008 profile of Mays, the Washington Post noted that top pitchmen get about $20,000 upfront for each commercial they tape, although Mays made even more money from a commission on gross revenue. Forbes magazine said his efforts accounted for more than $1 billion in sales for the products he pitched.

He was born William D. Mays Jr. in McKees Rocks, Pa., and grew up in Pittsburgh. He dropped out of West Virginia University and worked for his father’s hazardous-waste trucking company. In 1983, he ran into a high school friend who was headed to Atlantic City, N.J., to sell Ginsu knives on the boardwalk. Mays went along for the ride and ended up becoming a pitchman himself.

Survivors include his wife, Deborah Mays, of Tampa.

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